Fear and Fragile Peace: A Long-Suffering People Prepare for a New War
In the video diary that Ali Dagher intended as his last testament of the 34-day war between Israel and Hizbullah, there is a scene where he produces two cupped handfuls of metal bomb fragments that landed in his kitchen. "I collected these here in the house," he tells the camera. "I am not telling anyone about them because I don't want them to be afraid."
The time-date stamp at the bottom of the screen reads July 28 2006, a day of intense battle in this former fortress of Hizbullah. The man staring into the camera is hollow-cheeked and exhausted. But a year later, the chance to look back is intoxicating. Mr Dagher has watched this video diary 10 times since the war - each time a celebration of the fact that he is still alive.
"When I was filming this tape, I had no hope of surviving. All I was thinking in my head was that I was going to die," he says. "But now that the war has ended, and I am still alive, I feel good. I feel that I did something important."
Mr Dagher's wife, Jumana, cannot bear to remain in the house when the video is on, and walks out. "It hurts me too much to remember," she says.
The sense of siege has not yet lifted in Lebanon - despite a durable ceasefire, the deployment of 13,500 United Nations troops to keep the peace in the south, and millions of dollars pledged for reconstruction from Arab states.
Instead, say many Lebanese, there is a deepening dread of a new war to come. There is no shortage of likely pretexts for a confrontation: a string of high-profile assassinations and bombings, and deepening political divisions in Beirut. In the north, there have been fierce clashes with al-Qaida affiliates at the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared, outside Tripoli. In the south, there are suggestions of a plot to drive out the UN peacekeepers and provoke a new war with Israel.
There are also undeniable signs that Hizbullah is digging in for a new encounter with Israel, this time in the isolated and sun-scorched mountains just north of the Litani river.
"Don't think that everything got better immediately after the war was over," Mr Dagher says. "It will take 20 years."
A day before we met, his century-old house, whose thick stone walls had sheltered up to 50 members of Mr Dagher's family during the war, was condemned by the town authorities: it had been hit too many times to rebuild.
In its three rooms, used by the family in ordinary times as a store for sacks of sugar and flour for their sweet shop in town, the Daghers tried to turn a siege into a sit-com. "The fact that we were 48 people and we were trying to entertain ourselves was funny. We tried to turn tragedy into comedy," says Mr Dagher's cousin, also called Ali. Early in the war, on July 17, small children are sitting in a circle having a picnic on the floor, and Mr Dagher's son, Hussein, now six, is blowing kisses at the camera. By July 19, the laughing children have been supplanted by images of worried adults, praying amid the rumble of artillery.
The scenes show Mr Dagher trying to amuse the children by getting them to offer a tour of their makeshift sleeping quarters: a windowless closet. Off camera, the women grumble about the washing up and running out of food. The television is constantly tuned to the Hizbullah station; even the smallest children know the slogans by heart.
By July 27, the fighting has got so close that six-month-old Alaa is being blown off her mattress on the floor. Three days later, during a brief ceasefire, the Daghers flee, trundling the children in wheelbarrows over the hills to safety. When they return, with Mr Dagher still filming through the shattered windscreen of his car, he thinks his neighborhood, along the town's southern slopes, looks like Hiroshima.
The town is now emerging, slowly, from that devastation, with workmen camped out in the rubble, and bulldozers and other heavy equipment choking the roads. But even this effort is touched by Lebanon's divisions.
Immediately after the war, Hizbullah doled out up to $6,000 (£3,000) for each family for new furniture - an act of largesse that many people presume was underwritten by Iran. The machinery of the Lebanese government was not as well oiled, and its pockets less deep.
Months later, some in Bint Jbeil complain that compensation comes first to those who are politically connected. "I was so frustrated I was going to burn tires in front of the house," says Hussein Kosseir, who has yet to receive money to repair the shattered glass and scarred walls of his home.
Still, Bint Jbeil is further along than most other places in southern Lebanon, largely because of a plan to enlist Qatar to oversee the rebuilding. Some $100m has been set aside for reconstruction in historic neighborhoods such as Mr Dagher's. This means a town that continues to demonstrate its fealty to Hizbullah in the yellow banners that flutter over its destruction will owe its recovery to the generosity of a government - Qatar - that enjoys economic relations with Israel, and that also hosts a giant US military base.
It's a fragile peace. Last month, two Katyusha rockets were fired over the border into Israel - the first since the war. Barely a week later, on June 24, six Spanish and Colombian soldiers from the UN force in southern Lebanon were killed by a suicide car bomber. The UN had been braced for such an attack, aimed at driving its forces out of Lebanon. "We all knew there were groups against this," says the Unifil spokesman, Milos Strugar. "There are people, groups, who would like to undermine this agreement for the cessation of hostilities."
Last summer's war erupted just six years after Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon, ending more than two decades of occupation. During that time, Hizbullah built sophisticated bunkers with elaborate electrical and ventilation systems, all carved out of the hills, despite regular Israeli drone surveillance flights. That defensive line - exposed during the war - is now being replicated just north of the Litani river, beyond the reach of the UN patrols. On a hilltop overlooking one such possible site - a slope gouged by sandstone quarrying - a lone teenage foot soldier, still too young to grow a full moustache - stands sentry. Moments after our approach, two Hizbullah officials carrying attache cases emerge to demand to see our documents.
This part of Lebanon had been dominated by Christian and Druze communities, and villagers say that a Shia businessman has been methodically buying up land since the war, becoming the area's biggest landowner. Shia families are also moving into the area.
Observers of Lebanon are not surprised by the preparations; Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's leader, is known for his meticulous planning.
Timur Goksel, a former senior adviser to Unifil, said: "It shows their awareness that the next war is going to be different - and that there will be a next war.
"Hizbullah figures that the next time Israel comes they are not going to look for missiles from the air. There is going to be a massive land invasion."
By the time a ceasefire was reached, the war that began with the capture of two Israeli soldiers in a Hizbullah cross-border raid on Israel had killed more than 1,000 Lebanese and 158 Israelis. Most of the Israelis were soldiers, although the figure also includes 43 people killed inside Israel by Hizbullah rocket attacks. The Dahia, the Hizbullah stronghold of Beirut's southern suburbs, and much of the Shia heartland of southern Lebanon, including the old town of Bint Jbeil, were in ruins. Modern tower blocks in Beirut vanished; houses that had served villagers for generations were destroyed.
Israeli bombing raids had deliberately targeted bridges and roads, and in a departing act, dropped 4m cluster bombs on orange orchards and farms in the final hours of the war. Some 120,000 have since been recovered, according to the mine-clearing taskforce operated by the UN and Lebanese authorities.
The most recent war continues to write its legacy on southern Lebanon - even as preparations are being made for the next one.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007